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‘I end up hugging complete strangers and crying’: inside the epic episode that might change Bluey forever
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‘I end up hugging complete strangers and crying’: inside the epic episode that might change Bluey forever

Bluey is an absolute phenomenon. It’s one of the world’s biggest TV shows, an Emmy-winning behemoth so popular that it accounts for nearly one-third of all TV views on Disney+. Last year, the family-friendly animated series was the second most-streamed show on any platform, behind only Suits. For its creator, Joe Brumm, though, there’s one particular accolade that’s really earned him bragging rights. “Ryan Gosling’s a Bluey fan,” he grins. “To my wife’s eternal joy.”

Now Bluey is about to get even bigger. Despite the adventures of the cartoon dog and her family having won over the world with episodes that are a snappy, child-friendly seven minutes in duration, the show is about to launch its first ever extended special, The Sign – Bluey’s longest outing by far at 28 minutes.

“It’s a bit of a risk,” says Brumm, “but we’ve worked hard to make sure it doesn’t outstay its welcome.” Might it pave the way for Bluey: The Movie? Could the hound from Brisbane be heading to Hollywood?

Leader of the pack … Joe Brumm.View image in fullscreen

“If there’s riots in the street and kindergartens, maybe not!” says Brumm. “I love the idea of doing something even longer, so we’ll see how this goes down. Maybe a movie, who knows? This is a good way to test the waters.”

It’s a level of ambition that feels right for a show such as Bluey. The joyful, funny anthropomorphic escapades of the seven-year-old blue heeler pup have been widely lauded for their boundary-pushing ambition. Our snapshots of Bluey’s life with her mother Chilli, father Bandit and little sister Bingo in the Queensland capital’s suburbs are a heartfelt portrayal of domestic life and celebration of the magical power of play, forever shooting off in unexpected directions.

Bluey is also no stranger to branching out. Since launching on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) in 2018 – before being picked up by the BBC and Disney – it has spawned bestselling books, chart-topping albums, video games, live stage shows, theme park attractions and all manner of merchandise. As a result, the franchise is now worth an estimated $2bn.

The plot of The Sign is a closely guarded secret, but rumours are rife in advance of its premiere. Bluey subreddits and fan podcasts are feverishly suggesting it could feature a birth, death or house move. There’s speculation about surprise guest voices from Margot Robbie to Hugh Jackman, from the Hemsworth brothers to the Minogue sisters (Kylie and Dannii recently read a Bluey storybook on YouTube). There are even fears that it could be a farewell episode before the beloved show goes on hiatus.

Brumm is wary of spoilers but hints we’ll hear wedding bells. “When I was busy writing season three, ABC mentioned the idea of a special. I think I’m allowed to say it’s a wedding episode. If you think of Bluey as a sitcom, they all have a wedding episode, so I fancied a crack. The idea lodged in my head and the story grew from there.”

One thing we do know is that Hollywood star Joel Edgerton will make his Bluey debut, following in the footsteps of famous Bluey fans Natalie Portman, Eva Mendes and Lin-Manuel Miranda who have lent their voices in cameo roles – and Rose Byrne, who appears regularly as Aunt Brandy. The episode is also likely to feature Patrick Brammall, best known for acclaimed romcom Colin from Accounts – given that the prime candidates for any nuptials are Bandit’s elder brother Radley [voiced by Brammall] and his spaniel girlfriend Aunt Frisky.

“Pat and Harry [Colin from Accounts’ co-creator, co-star and Brammall’s real-life wife Harriet Dyer] deserve all the plaudits they’re getting,” says Brumm. “The success of both our shows overseas is something for Australia to be proud of. Funny how they’re both about dogs. There’s even a little mention for Bingo and Bandit in their show, if I remember rightly.”

Bandit, Chilli, Bingo and Bluey.View image in fullscreen

Fan forums have interpreted The Sign’s title as a hint that big changes are coming for the Heeler family. “The stakes are a little higher,” confirms Brumm, trying his best to be cryptic. “Characters have to wrestle with things. Hardcore fans will enjoy spotting little elements from previous episodes popping up. The overall theme is that you never know where something will lead. Hopefully there will be tears and laughter. It definitely made most of our crew cry.” The laid-back 46-year-old laughs. “Although once you become a parent, you tend to cry at the drop of a hat anyway.”

His waggy-tailed hit is heavily Brit-influenced. After studying animation back home on the Gold Coast, Brumm moved to the UK. He worked briefly on Ben & Holly’s Little Kingdom and was an animator on CBeebies favourite Charlie and Lola. “I learned so much in London,” he recalls fondly. “I imbibed their methods, many of which I ended up using on Bluey. Working in Soho Square with some of the best people I’ve ever met, all fired up, doing something we loved and getting drunk together on Friday nights. I get misty thinking about it.”

It wasn’t just British children’s TV that inspired Brumm. One grown-up sitcom played a part. “Gavin and Stacey was influential in a big way,” he says. “I loved how it genuinely crossed generations, like The Simpsons back in the day. I thought: ‘Why shouldn’t a kids’ show make parents laugh too?’ When the time came to do Bluey, that became the challenge.”

Brumm returned to his native “Brissie” in 2010, established a small animation studio and set about creating his own show. He envisaged it as an Aussie take on Peppa Pig, porcine stablemate of Ben & Holly, and soon settled on blue heelers, a local breed of cattle dog, as his primary characters.

“What I liked about Peppa Pig was that it felt really English but without cliches or flag-waving,” he explains. “Mr Bull would be digging up the road and say: ‘It’ll be finished when it’s finished.’ There are canal boats and castles in the background. That’s what I wanted my show to do – to feel Australian but not with kangaroos and koalas, just by capturing the fabric of everyday life.”

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Crucially, he tweaked the personality of his family patriarch: “Daddy Pig makes me laugh but I couldn’t do another goofball dad.” Instead, Brumm made the show a celebration of imaginative role-play, with Bandit a fully engaged, endearingly daft participant.

“The show grafted closely to the games I was playing with my own kids at the time. That became the fodder for early episodes. I’d be the dunderhead or the tyrant within the game but, when I needed to, I could step out of the game and be a good dad. Bandit is an idealised version, like me on my best day, but the way Bluey demonstrates the very real benefits of play is one of the things I’m proudest of. Play can facilitate genuine growth – socially, emotionally, developmentally. I hope that’ll be a positive legacy of the show.”

Bandit won Father of the Year in 2019 and is credited with changing male attitudes to parenting. On a Facebook group called “Bandits: The Bluey Group for Dads”, 86,000 members swap tips on how to deal with their own young pups.

“Bandit becoming a role model was a surprise but he’s a good dad, so I’m pleased,” says Brumm. “He’s hands-on, playful and loving. He’d do anything for his family. He works hard. He can be tired and impatient but he’s courageous and faces up to his own mistakes. They’re a fine set of values to emulate.”

Does Brumm hear from fathers who’ve been inspired by Bandit? “A lot, actually. I get emotional letters. A very common response is: ‘It showed me a different way that I can be a parent.’ Often it’s a dad who didn’t have a great role model himself growing up. Bluey’s a funny little cartoon about a dog family but it’s become a touchpoint for people. Whenever I appear at an event, I end up hugging complete strangers and crying together.”

Global success has been full of surprises for him. “It happens in ways you’d never imagine, like the Thanksgiving balloon [a four-storey inflatable Bluey bobbed through Manhattan as part of Macy’s 2022 Thanksgiving Day parade]. I never expected to sit in Madison Square Garden watching the premiere of Bluey’s Big Play. I never dreamed of winning a Bafta. Because my whole career started in the UK, that was like 50 Oscars to me. It’s immensely satisfying, especially when I think back to when we started out. We didn’t know if we’d even finish the first episode. It was quite possibly going to land me in debt or in jail. Whenever I’m getting a bit immune to Bluey’s success, I put myself back there and I’m like: ‘Man, you did it.’”

Every Bluey fan has favourites among the 150+ episodes so far. How about the man who created them? “I love Bin Night and Cricket, which made me cry – along with many Australian men, it seems. I’m also proud of Pirates because it was the first time I went: ‘Wow, that’s pretty dense for seven minutes.” And Dad Baby because I snuck in a Vietnam war movie reference and they simulate birth in a backyard paddling pool, which I’ve never seen anywhere else. I’m happy I had the balls to do that. And look, I really do love The Sign.” Hopefully viewers love the super-sized episode too – and that it means Bluey goes walkies all the way to Hollywood.

The Sign is on Disney+ in the UK and US, and on ABC and ABC iView in Australia on Sunday 14 April .

Source: theguardian.com